In any harvested feed, there's always some feed loss and change in quality. Much of the loss, however, can be avoided with better management and better storage… if the cost can be justified.
Round bales may save time and labor, but the potential for loss of feed quality is great. I often see bales sitting in the field way too long. I also see round bales lined up in rows in stack yards exposed to the elements.
I have yet to see hay quality improve when stored in these conditions. If someone goes to the expense of harvesting the feed, they need to take care of it.
Some producers rationalize this by saying the losses occur only in the outside layer. After all, the inside is still green. These folks don't realize that a third of the bale exists in the outer 6 in. Many times, the spoilage is deeper than that. The outer 18 in. of round bales contains 75% of the hay in the bale!
At times, the loss of feed value can be extremely severe. This past year, I was forced to contend with many soft-core round bales from the Dakotas that had been completely spoiled by rain. Little feed value was left.
There's no good substitute to stacking round bales in a shed or covering them with plastic. Due to their shape, round bales are more exposed to the elements than square bales. A stack of square bales is exposed on only the top and outer bales.
Stacking round bales pyramid style (three wide) allows rain and snow to cover almost every bale, and excess moisture runs off to the lower bales.
It's now popular to stand one round bale on its end and then place another atop it sideways. Whether this conformation reduces quality losses is debatable.
Good management is needed to maintain hay quality. While round bales definitely save labor, proper storage is more critical.
Moldy or burnt hay suffers a tremendous loss of nutrients. The soluble sugars and carbohydrates are burned up, and protein is degraded and unusable. What is left is fiber and lignin, both of which are fairly indigestible.
Raking hay is another big source of feed quality loss. I often see producers with hydraulic rakes (twin or single) blasting away with the reel going as fast as it can go.
The purpose of hydraulic rakes is to be able to slow the reel down in order to minimize leaf loss while maintaining ground speed. The leaves are the best part of the hay. It takes patience to rake hay — it can't be done fast.
Silage losses typically come from spoilage that occurs on the top and sides of the pile, a heating of the silage and drainage of liquids from the pile. Some loss is unavoidable, but typically there's room for improvement.
First off, the dark, moldy mess on top should be discarded as it negatively affects gain. But in most cases, there's really no good way to remove it. If removed, the next layer starts to deteriorate in quality, so the waste actually serves as a protective cover for the silage beneath it, but it is still a loss of feed.
It's not possible to prevent all the spoilage, even if covered with plastic and tires. But this practice certainly reduces the losses substantially.
Silage bags do a great job of preserving silage, but they necessitate extra time and equipment. For many operations, it's too costly.
Silage inoculants have been shown to reduce nutrient losses in silage. However, the difference may not be noticeable to the naked eye. Weight-in and weight-out, along with temperature monitoring and feed sampling, will reveal any nutrient and dry matter losses. It's time-consuming, and few people bother.
Some measure of feed loss is unavoidable. It's virtually impossible to put up feed with no loss of dry matter or nutrients, but these losses can be reduced further than most producers do now.
All operators have individual limitations regarding labor, facilities and finances. Remember, it costs the same to put up poor quality feed as it does to put up good quality feed.
David Wieland is a nutrition consultant specializing in cow/calf, feedlot and horses. Based in Shepherd, MT, he also publishes a subscription newsletter. Contact him at 406/373-5512 or firstname.lastname@example.org.